Jamie and Susanna Parker’s ten-year-old eyes could not get much bigger with excitement and anticipation as they sat under the big oak tree in the middle of town.
More than a dozen strong, burley men were doing something the twins had never seen: raising a huge brown canvas tent that would hold over two hundred people. Jamie jumped to his feet to get a better view.
“Boy, that sure is a lot different than the one Pa put up at our campsite on the lake last night.”
The Parkers had traveled a long forty miles to take part in this yearly vacation aimed at entertaining and enlightening the mind. The traveling circuit was called Chautauqua and had been around since the late 1800s.
In the past, Grandma Sissy had stayed with the twins back on the farm, but this time she insisted she would not go to her grave never having heard the great William Jennings Bryan.
The twin’s parents, Jessie and Constance, were busy putting up cots and hauling water from the spigot provided at the entrance to the lake campground. It was 1920, and most folks were more of a mind to stay away from expensive hotels.
As Constance stirred supper in a black iron pot over the little fire, the three older boys, Thom, Ned, and Roy were talking a mile a minute.
“Listen to this, Mama,” read Thom from a much-perused brochure, “There is a band called Bohumir Kryl’s Bohemian Band and they are going to play the Anvil Chorus with some real anvils and hammers in the Tympani section.”
“Bohemian?” she wrinkled her brow.
“Gee Ma, you know Kryl learned everything he knows from John Philip Sousa. I heard that they do some kind of sparks on stage and it is really something to see.”
Constance knew the moral tone and objectives of the Chautauqua would never allow any unseemly entertainment. She loved seeing her children so happy and carefree.
“Call the twins to supper so we can get cleaned up for tonight’s activities.”
Grandma Sissy poured water from the bucket into the blue enamel coffee pot and put that on the campfire to boil, then she slipped into the makeshift tent to change into a fresh summer dress.
Constance joined her. “I am glad you will finally get to hear that William Jennings Bryan, Mother.”
“Well, don’t say it that way, girl. Even though he was Secretary of State under President Woodrow Wilson, I am not much interested in his politics tonight. He is, however, a most effective evangelist and temperance crusader.
Grandma Sissy had a thing or two to say about alcohol herself. Another place she planned to stop by tonight was the Fisk University Chorus. She did not hear those lively spirituals at her church back home. This was like a present for her. There were almost too many choices and only a week to see and hear everything.
Constance and Jessie decided to spend the first hour listening to Maud Ballington Booth. Some called her the” Little Mother of the Prisons.” She had a tender heart for reform and could make the toughest listener cry from her descriptions of life behind bars.
Tomorrow there would be a short and beautiful musical performance in the big brown tent. Stars from the Metropolitan Opera Company would sing, and later, there would be plays, readings and comedy sketches.
There were lectures based on civic, social, religious, and other informational topics. It was a feast for the mind and soul for small town and rural Americans who worked hard all year. To the Parkers, it was precious time spent together.
As the evening wore into night, the pleasantly tired family strolled back toward their cozy campsite, each enjoying the treat of an ice cream cone. Jamie and Susanna could barely keep their eyes open. The boys were in animated conversation about the music they had heard.
They passed a park bench with two people in deep conversation. Susanna turned around to report.
“ Mama, why is Grandma Sissy talking so loud to that tall man in the hat. I heard her call him Mr. Bryan.”
“Never mind, dear. She probably has a new friend.”
Jesse did a double take and then looked down at his wife.
Constance squeezed his hand. “Shh, I’ll tell you later.”
He couldn’t help smiling as he sighed in a loving, contented way, “Ah, the mysteries at Camp Chautauqua.”
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